published Monday, October 31st, 2011

LaFayette gives competitive edge to Mayor Neal Florence’s Medi-Thrift Pharmacy


by Andy Johns
Neal Florence, the mayor of LaFayette and owner of Medi-Thrift Pharmacy in downtown LaFayette, works behind the counter of his store.
Neal Florence, the mayor of LaFayette and owner of Medi-Thrift Pharmacy in downtown LaFayette, works behind the counter of his store.
  • photo
    LaFayette Mayor and pharmacist Neal Florence speaks with Zonia McKenzie about the prescription she's picking up at Medi-Thrift Pharmacy in LaFayette, Ga. in this file photo.

  • photo
    Pharmacist Neal Florence helps Ruth McWilliams with a precription at Medi Thrift Pharmacy in LaFayette, Ga. in this file photo.

The city insurance plan in LaFayette, Ga., gives two pharmacies a competitive edge, and one of those stores is owned by the mayor.

According to the employee benefits package, city employees have to pay twice as much for prescriptions they fill at Walmart, CVS and other chain pharmacies compared with those filled at two local independent stores, including the Medi-Thrift Pharmacy run by Mayor Neal Florence.

Under the policy, which officials said is about 6 years old, the city’s approximately 130 employees have to pay $15, $30 or $50 for 30-day prescriptions at Medi-Thrift or Ledford’s Rx Express Pharmacy in town. At a Bi-Lo, Fred’s or other chain, they would be charged $30, $60 or $100 for the same drugs.

Florence, who has been mayor since 1989, said the policy doesn’t force anyone to go anywhere.

“They can go to any pharmacy they want,” he said in a phone interview. “I’m not sure if they get a better deal or not.”

Complaints about the policy were first raised on the LaFayette Underground blog, which suggested the mayor’s business interest might be the reason for the restrictions. When asked about the blog post, Florence said that if the Chattanooga Times Free Press portrayed the policy in a similar light, “I’ll come after you.”

He declined to comment further.

When told of the practice earlier this month, new City Manager Franklin Etheridge said he would look into the policy. He said he hadn’t heard any complaints from employees, “but that doesn’t mean we’re not going to look at it.”

Friday, Etheridge said he had met with MedAdmin Solutions, which administers the plan, and learned the company representatives negotiated the pricing five or six years ago.

“They tend to get lower prices with local pharmacies, so that’s how they focus their program,” he said.

He echoed Florence in saying employees aren’t forced to get their medicine at any particular store, but acknowledged “obviously there’s an incentive” to buy at the two independent shops.

Other cities give employees greater freedom on where they get their medicines.

In Rossville, City Clerk Sherry Foster said employees can go to any pharmacy that accepts Aetna insurance, which includes virtually all in the region.

Chickamauga, Ga., switched from BlueCross BlueShield of Georgia to Alliant Healthcare. But officials said all the plans cover purchases at Walmart, Walgreens, Bi-Lo, Chickamauga Drug Store and others.

“It’s their choice,” said City Manager John Culpepper. “I don’t put any pressure on any employees.”

Brenda Motheral, executive director of the Pharmacy Benefit Management Institute in Plano, Texas, said 26 percent of companies and other entities that provide prescription coverage for employees use “restricting networks” to lower costs. The “increasingly common” policies usually are put in place when the insurance provider negotiates price breaks with pharmacies, she said.

LaFayette’s case is rare, however, because chains are normally the ones undercutting the independents’ prices, Motheral said.

“Usually, if you see it, it would work the other way around,” she said.

But if the independents are cheaper, the policy could be a way for LaFayette to save money.

“You hope that’s what they’re doing,” she said.

about Andy Johns...

Andy began working at the Times Free Press in July 2008 as a general assignment reporter before focusing on Northwest Georgia and Georgia politics in May of 2009. Before coming to the Times Free Press, Andy worked for the Anniston Star, the Rome News Tribune and the Campus Carrier at Berry College, where he graduated with a communications degree in 2006. He is pursuing a master’s degree in business administration at the University of Tennessee ...

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joneses said...

Well of course this is what the people of Lafayette are forced to allow as the judges, mayor, attorneys, police departments and basically all government office in this area are the most corrupt in the southeast. It is the same as one of those African nations where corruption is rampant.

October 31, 2011 at 7:34 a.m.
dennis said...

I think that it is time for the so called good mayor to go the way of the recently departed city manager. It's a shame that you can't trust anyone in the city government in Lafayette. Neil, do the community a favor and get out of office. Your threat to the times free press makes you look guilty, and I know you don't have the money or the legal staff to fight them. Who wants to do business in walker county with people like you running the government. I don't know who is worse, you or bebee with all of her hinchmen.

October 31, 2011 at 4:47 p.m.
colvardc said...

First off, I feel like the author of this article and the "Lafayette Underground" have not done their research. If you want to criticize the city government, it is your right to do so. However, to publish this article and the garbage of the "underground" about an individual pharmacy and its involvement in health care when you are not involved in it directly is very pompous. If you haven't worked in it (pharmacy), you don't know that independent pharmacies do not make large sums. They watch every penny, and work twice as hard to compete with CVS and Walmart. They care about each individual, not the masses (like Walmart).

So, you're worried that Neil is making the big bucks because the city employees are "forced" to come to Medi-Thrift? Stop. He works hard to be a good pharmacist and survive in dwindling market. This market is the market that cares about their customer. It's not Walmart or CVS. It is an INDEPENDENT. So go to your Walmart and feel like you're keeping the mayor from his kick-backs if you want, but you'll wait for 1 hour and you will be 1 prescription out of 600. You think you're not just another number? Actually, they just want meet their national quota and get you out of the way.

November 2, 2011 at 1:57 p.m.
LuLaFayette said...

The complaints we mentioned are from City Employees tired of having to overpay for medication. They're also tired of having to use pharmacies that aren't open on weekends or evenings. Here's what we actually said originally, as a side comment on a broader topic:

We concede that LaFayette has done a good job of keeping employee health insurance costs under control. Employees complain (to us and others) about their share of the payments, but everyone’s insurance costs are up in the last few years and the city has managed to keep things fairly stable here. However, the city could save more money on health insurance by allowing plan participants (city employees and their families) to purchase drugs from any pharmacy instead of only the “non-chain” stores it currently limits them to.

--

While it’s good to support local businesses, LaFayette’s two “non-chain” pharmacies charge more for medication than their national counterparts and neither is open on weekends or after 6 PM. And one of them is owned by LaFayette’s mayor, which might be the real reason for these restrictions. In future years the council should consider opening up employee insurance to any pharmacy within city limits, even hated Walmart and CVS.

The mayor's response to being challenged on this is more revealing than what we said in the first place. Sometimes reactions are worth more than the original comment.

Here's the whole article in context: www.cityoflafayettega.com/2011/10/four-firings-frank/

November 2, 2011 at 6:49 p.m.
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